Weed Watch

Hemp Farming, and a Merry Pill-Poppin' Limbaugh

Weed Watch
Illustration By Doug Potter

If all goes well, North Dakota could be the first state to issue farmers' licenses to grow industrial hemp in accordance with state law. Last week, North Dakota Agriculture Commissioner Roger Johnson announced a set of proposed rules that could jump-start the widespread legal cultivation of industrial hemp in the U.S. for the first time since just after World War II. In a press release, he called this "an important step in the process of enabling farmers to grow and sell this valuable crop."

Industrial hemp – strains of marijuana with just trace amounts of tetrahydrocannabinol, the main psychoactive ingredient in pot – was perfectly legal to cultivate until the 1970s, when changes to the Controlled Substances Act blurred the definition of industrial hemp, melding it with the definition of its narcotic, and prohibited, cousin. Since then, the Drug Enforcement Administration has tightly controlled hemp production through its power to grant or deny (or simply ignore) individual requests for permission to grow the environmentally friendly crop. (The DEA has only ever approved one license, which expired in 2003.) Nonetheless, there's been renewed interest in hemp farming; since the mid-Nineties, 14 states have passed laws calling for scientific, economic, or environmental studies of the crop, and several, including North Dakota, have legalized industrial hemp farming, despite the virtual ban on its cultivation imposed by the feds, who claim, among other things, that legalizing hemp farming will somehow encourage the illegal trade in smokeable pot. Not surprisingly, the ban has endured in spite of the growing market for hemp products – from food to textiles to car parts – which is a growing, multimillion-dollar-per-year industry. Since U.S. farmers are unable to legally grow the crop, however, hemp used for consumer products must be imported from other countries, including Canada and China. (According to the Congressional Research Service, the U.S. is the only "developed" nation without an established hemp crop.)

If Ag Commissioner Johnson and his counterparts in several other states have their way, however, hemp farming will soon make a legal comeback. In February, Johnson and three other state agriculture commissioners traveled to Washington, D.C., to meet with DEA officials to "explore acceptable rules" for legalized hemp farming – a surprising act of amity from an agency that otherwise seems hell-bent on maintaining prohibition on all things marijuana. Since then, Johnson has come up with a strict set of rules for farmers seeking to grow industrial hemp: Farmers must submit to criminal background checks, stringently document how much hemp they sell and to whom, plot the location of their hemp crops with geopositioning coordinates, and must have hemp seeds tested to ensure they contain no more than .3% THC, among other rules. (See the proposed rules at www.agdepartment.com/PDFFiles/ProposedIndustrialHempRules5-2006.pdf.) Johnson's rules are set for a public hearing on June 15 and could be finalized by fall. Whether the DEA intends to play fair remains to be seen; under the proposed rules, North Dakota hemp farmers would still be required to obtain a federal hemp-farming license from the DEA.end story In other news, Rush Limbaugh, arguably talk radio's most bombastic hypocrite, cut himself a deal with prosecutors last week on charges that he had engaged in "doctor shopping" to obtain overlapping prescriptions to feed his OxyContin pill-popping habit. Limbaugh's run-in with the law over his use of prescription painkillers has been dragging on for several years, and yet, amazingly, the man has managed to keep himself out of jail. Shocking? Not really – he is, after all, a wealthy white guy from West Palm Beach, Fla., – but the whole ordeal brings to the fore a shining example of the Ditto-head's hypocritical double standard. On-air, Limbaugh has never shied away from disparaging drug users and suggesting that loser users should be locked up. To wit, consider this brief tirade, concerning the disparities in rates of incarceration for whites and blacks: "[T]oo many whites are getting away with drug use. Too many whites are getting away with drug sales," Limbaugh reportedly said during an October 1995 program. "The answer is not to start letting people out of jail because we're not putting others in jail … The answer is to go out and find the ones who are getting away with it, convict them, and send them up the river too." Besides being myopic (if not just completely ignorant), Limbaugh's callousness apparently doesn't apply to everyone – least of all himself. On April 28, during a press conference announcing his client's deal with prosecutors – which will keep Limbaugh out of jail entirely as long as he completes further drug treatment and pays a $30K fine to offset the cost of the state investigation of his case – Limbaugh's lawyer Roy Black told reporters that the plea deal "good common sense," as a reasoned way to deal with drug addiction. "With anyone in this position, who finds themselves addicted to pain medication, it is really unfair to prosecute them or to make some sort of a big case out of it," he continued. "The idea is to help the person overcome the addiction. Because when a person is addicted, the only person who is suffering is that person, and no one is suggesting that Rush Limbaugh did anything to hurt anyone other than himself." At least not last week, that is.

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